A Heritage Docusoap XDCAM Workflow (Part 1: Production and The Hand-off)

What makes docusoap production unique?

The docusoap is a unique subgenre of reality television that draws on techniques from documentary production and news gathering. Specifically, it is a direct descendant of Cinéma Vérité. You can witness this heritage if you watch The Queen of Versailles (1, 2) and compare it to any of The Real Housewives. Truthful subjects presented behind crude reality.

But if the docusoap, perfected by Bravo, can claim such a noble pedigree; we also need to acknowledge its scamp father, Electronic news-gathering.

The production of a docusoap scene has more in common with the techniques used by a news crew, than anything resembling a film shoot where shots are carefully blocked and rehearsed. The recording of a good docusoap scene has the mise-en-scène of a professional football team (either one) playing around a UCB improv troupe. Reality just happen; and the crew is always just a half step behind.

And of course you have genre defining sit down interview present in both documentary and news productions:

Bravo interview
Lisa Vanderpump in the iconic Bravo “confessional” interview.

The influence of Electronic news-gathering on the docusoap production is especially predominant on this heritage workflow. “Heritage” (borrowing a term from LightIron’s Michael Cioni) because it is based around the Sony Professional Disc and the XDCAM HD422 codec. It utilizes the shoulder mounted F800 camera; a 13 lb beast that you were as likely to see carried by the local news crew, as you were on location with the Real Housewives. This workflow is fast! And very stable.

This in-depth workflow write up is meant to provided a solid foundation for crafting your own workflow. What is presented here is as much a way to think about workflow, as it is an actual how-to.

Acquisition →

PENTAX Image
Note: although the term “XDCAM” is used interchangeably, the actual physical media is technically called the Professional Disc and the audio & video media is recorded with the XDCAM codec in a MXF wrapped file. Image by Dylan Reeve, CC BY-SA 3.0

Our acquisition tools are the Sony PDW-F800 ENG style camera and the Sound Devices 788T audio recorder.

F800
The tried and true Sony PDW-F800.

Video is recorded on Sony Professional Discs, the media is MXF wrapped, 50 Mbit, HD422 XDCAM at a 23.976 non-drop frame rate.

788t_io
The tried and true Sound Devices 788T.

Audio is recorded at 16 bit 48 kHz B-WAV mono track files, because Avid Media Composer does not work well with polyphonic files.

The production team is instructed to “roll fat,” i.e., keep the cameras rolling as much as possible. The post teams needs this because each time the camera stops recording, a new clip is created, creating more work for the assistant editors during episode preparation .

The ‘F800’ and ‘788’ are workhorses. Both devices are extremely reliable; have a large user base, therefore finding a crew is easier than some of the more exotic cameras; and are well supported throughout the global, especially within the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The F800 was designed as a news camera which further speaks to its reliability. But there is one additional feature that makes this camera a time saver further down the line: proxy video recording. The F800 is capable of simultaneously recording a low-resolution 1.5 MB/s MPEG-4 file that can be used for offline editorial. In this heritage workflow, the proxy media is copied directly to our Avid Isis shared storage system at four times real-time (i.e. 1 hour of footage requires 15 minutes of ingest for editorial).

Contrast this 4X speed with a modern tapeless workflows which requires a specialized DIT cart, or a lengthy transcode process that is usually one and a half times real-time (i.e. 1 hour of footage requires 1:30 hours to ingest for editorial). ‘Ep Prep’ is the stage most likely to introduce ‘lag’ between production and post, so any tool that adds efficiency is most welcome.

Side note: I once read that Formula 1 race cars are required to be designed within such a tight specification, that the most efficiency one team’s car can have over another is only one or two percent. However, that small 1% efficiency, whether a little less drag or a little less weight, is what separates a winning team from a middling one. The same dynamic is at play here. If the average show tapes between 1,500 – 1,800 Professional Discs; if a technique is able to save me 2 minutes per disc; then the result is 55 saved hours. That is entire week of Assistant Editor time.

The hand-off: Dallies & Tape shipments

This docusoap workflow doesn’t have a dallies stage in the traditional sense, because the field team rarely has time to rewatch the taped footage. The most common reason a field producer will look back is for wardrobe continuity purposes when taping a pickup scene.

That said, the Professional Disc is a nonlinear digital format (as opposed to a linear digital format like DVCProHD tape) and each disc can be cloned digitally. In this case each disc is loaded into a Sony U2 drive and copied on a 2TB G-Drive by our Production Coordinator before the hand-off. In the unlikely event of a shipment loss, these G-Drives  function as a backup of the master footage; while also giving the field team the opportunity to look back on taped footage like dallies.

Simultaneously, the audio team transfers each day’s audio from the 788T recorder to a 1 TB LaCie Rugged hard drive. The audio team also includes a Sound Report, which is a csv file generated by the 788T that lists which cast members were recorded on each channel, the number of takes, and additional metadata that is useful to the Assistant Editors during episode prep.

After all of the day’s discs and audio have been copied, the Production Coordinator packs them into a box and ships them to the post department via FedEx Priority Overnight. On rare occasions, the discs are sent via courier service. Equally important is that the Production Coordinator sends the Post Coordinator a detailed email listing: tracking number, a list of packed discs, and any additional information about the assets.

When the package is received by post department the Post Coordinator will check that all of the listed assets in the Production Coordinator’s email have been received; or address any discrepancies with the field team.

There are three primary considerations when planning the hand-off of footage from Production to Post:

  1. Geography.
  2. Time.
  3. Staffing.

Let’s review these one-by-one:

1) Geography will probably have the greatest influence on hand-off considerations, because a show that tapes and posts in the same area will have it considerably easier than a show that shoots on one side of the country and posts on another. Shows that tape ‘off-the-beaten path’ and therefore don’t have regular FedEx or Courier services available; or internationally, and therefore have to contend with customs; will have an additional level of logistical complexity to deal with. As a rule of thumb, the further apart production and post, the more this consideration comes into play.

2) How quickly footage needs to be turned around is also very important because it will determine whether you need to use FedEx or Courier. Every production should work as quickly and efficiently as possible; but there is a difference between producers wanting to work with footage quickly, and having your back against the wall because of air dates. You should make an effort to understand how real your deadlines are.

3) Finally, the size of your team affects what is possible. A production team can accomplish great things if one coordinator’s entire job is to work split shifts and backup discs, review the tape lists, and package assets for shipping. But if you only have one coordinator who’s getting clearance releases, buying craft services, and dealing with the tapes… well you’ll need to have more modest expectations.

These three factors interplay. If your show is taping on the other side of the country and is up against air dates; then you need to make sure that there is adequate personnel in place to handle tape shipment quickly and efficiently. If your show is taping down the block from your post house, the A.E.’s can handle most of the hand-off responsibilities.

In the next post we’ll discuss what to do when the discs and audio hard drives are handed off to the Lead Assistant Editor for Episode Prep.

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